Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2006    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  10, Issue  1

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The Study of Service-Learning as a Moral Matter

James M. Lies, Stanford University

Lies, Ph.D., is a post-doc at the Stanford Center on Adolescence, having recently completed his doctoral work at the University of Minnesota.



If moral development is a hoped for consequence of engagement in service-learning, any adequate construction and/or evaluation of service-learning programs requires a complete and comprehensive understanding of the moral situation. The Four Component Model (FCM) of Morality provides a fitting corrective to the historic overemphasis on moral reasoning and offers a comprehensive theoretical framework for understanding the motivations and effects of service-learning participation.




There is a chorus of voices in contemporary culture decrying humanity’s moral decline (Bork, 1996; Bouza, 1996; Fukuyama, 1999; Green, 1994). The emergence of terrorism in the United States and in Europe, and the horrors perpetrated on both sides of the US-Iraq war seem only to support their darkest assessments. Most major newspapers and news magazines, political pundits, and social analysts in the United States have heralded, in ever more ominous tones, our society’s seemingly inevitable slide into moral relativism. Over a decade ago, a poll indicated that 76% of adults believed that “the United States is in moral and spiritual decline” (Fineman, 1994). While the pessimist might conclude that the intervening years have done little to ease such concern, there is reason for hope. As concerns about the nation’s moral decline have increased over the past two decades, there has been a concurrent rise throughout every age group in participation in volunteer and service activities throughout the United States.


According to Campus Compact (2001), service-learning, a particular alternative on the spectrum of service related opportunities, has spread rapidly throughout communities, and academic settings of every level from elementary to post-secondary institutions. The growth is especially evident in secondary and post-secondary institutions (Billig & Waterman, 2003; Waterman, 1997). Whether prompted by a national increase in altruism, or a simple attempt to enhance one’s college or employment application, it is clear that there has been a significant increase in participation in service-learning activity among these groups (Campus Compact). According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) there were more than an estimated 13 million students involved in service and service-learning activities during the 2000-2001. Additionally, between 1984 and 1997, K-12 participation in service-learning grew from fewer than one million to 12.6 million students, with the proportion of high school students involved in service-learning growing from 2% to 25% during the same span (Fiske, 2001).


Secondary and post-secondary institutions, for their part, are clearly assuming the responsibility of educating students beyond the classroom. Collegiate participation has been found to enhance moral reasoning even after controlling for age and entering level of moral judgment (King & Mayhew, 2002; Rogers, 2002). Faith-based liberal arts institutions tend to focus on making “their students’ moral and civic engagement a high priority and have created a wealth of curricular and extracurricular programs to stimulate and support that development” (Colby, Ehrlich, Beaumont, & Stephens, 2003, p. 23). In an examination of such activities, Astin (1984) found that those students who limit their involvement solely to traditional curricular pursuits do not show the same gains as students who are involved in a broader range of activities. The question remains: In what ways might these service-learning opportunities stem the seeming tide of societal moral decline?  Most scholars who study the impact of the college experience on students agree that experiences outside the classroom can enhance important and valued attributes (Astin, 1977, 1993; Bowen, 1977; Chickering, 1993; McNeel, 1994; Pascarelli & Terrenzini, 2005).


Might this growing involvement in service-learning activities, during the formative years of high school and undergraduate studies, transform the citizenry in such a way as to stem society’s seemingly inevitable moral decline? Several studies indicate that indeed it does. There are a number of investigations of the effects of service-learning among college students (e.g., Borzak, 1981; Burwell, Butman, & Van Wicklin, 1992; Lies, 2005; McNeel, 1994). The interventions vary from course-related activities to an extended full-time summer service-learning program.



The term service-learning attempts to couple two complex concepts: “community action, the ‘service,’ and efforts to learn from that action, and connect what is learned to existing knowledge, the ‘learning’” (Stanton, Giles, & Cruz, 1999, p. 2). Although there are a number of different definitions that might aptly describe service-learning, and a vast array of contexts within which it might occur, they share a common core concept. According to the National Service-Learning Clearinghouse (NSLC) (2005) service-learning is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.” The definition combines service objectives with learning objectives such that both the server and those served are benefited by the process. Structured opportunities that link the service with self-reflection and self-discovery, beyond the service itself, facilitate and enhance both the experience and the learning. Service-learning advocates consider a well-rounded education to include a consideration of engagement in and about social and civic responsibility, leadership development, moral development, as well as career development (Kendall et al., 1990).


The reciprocality of service-learning is rooted in the structured reflection that takes place during and in the wake of the experience. The process is seen to enhance for students the sense that they can make a difference in the world (Bok & Newman, 1992). It is this desire to make a difference that has motivated many groups within colleges and universities to begin initiatives related to service-learning. Campus Compact, begun in 1985, grew out of a recognized need among a number of college and university administrators to create structures within which civic responsibility was encouraged and fostered (Campus Compact, 1990). During this time as well, a contingent of recent college graduates formed the organization Campus Outreach Opportunities League (COOL), to provide, facilitate, and encourage service-learning opportunities for students. The program facilitated in the founding of many student-initiated service projects. Since that time, the COOL network has grown considerably, and works with approximately 1000 colleges and universities, and draws more than 2000 students to its annual conferences (COOL, 1993).


Students who engage in service-learning are benefited in a number of ways. For example, some of the research on service-learning outcomes indicates an increase in self-esteem and an enhancement of social skills for those who engage in such enterprises (Bojar, 1991), and a number of other valued attributes (Astin, 1977, 1993; Bowen, 1977; Chickering, 1993; McNeel, 1994; Pascarelli & Terrenzini, 2005).  Most noteworthy from a moral development perspective, they are provided with an opportunity to make a difference in society, and to come to know much more deeply the communities in which they live (Ellis, 1978).


The measures of success for the respective providers of service-learning opportunities range from levels of participation, to satisfaction reports from the participants, to more rigorous empirical studies of the effects of the experience. The empirical assessments are largely undertaken using research designs and methods (Bringle, Phillips, & Hudson, 2004), employing a variety of scales measuring motives and values, moral development, self-concept, attitudes, and critical thinking, among others. Bringle, et al. (2004), provide an extensive discussion and a multitude of measures suggested for use in assessing the effectiveness of service-learning programs, depending on the interests of the researcher(s). In a review of the empirical literature, Eyler and Giles (1997) examined the factors that provide optimal service-learning experiences. They found that three factors were particularly important for an optimal experience: duration (longer experiences showed more positive results); reflection (an intentional practice involving journaling, presentations, informal discussions and weekly discussions); and site and task selection (placement should be in a site where a tangible difference can be made and where feedback is offered).


The Four Component Model of Morality

Contemporary culture and the academy are replete with references to moral and ethical development. Exhortations about the nature of and the need for moral or ethical development and moral education can be found in the popular press, in the growing emphasis on ethics in business, as well as in theological, educational, and psychological literature. A frequent quandary for the uninitiated is to understand the meaning and use of the word “moral” in these respective contexts. For the purposes of this essay, the definition of the term moral is drawn from the theoretical worldview of cognitive-developmental psychology and, more particularly, from the work of Lawrence Kohlberg (1969, 1971, 1976, 1981). Further, for the purposes of establishing a context, moral reasoning is seen as existing within the broader realm outlined by the Four Component Model (FCM) of Morality. The need to evaluate service-learning programs and to assess their impact compels researchers to consider a theoretical context in which to examine service-learning as a moral enterprise. The FCM provides just such a context. First articulated by James Rest (1983) and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota (Rest, Bebeau, & Volker, 1986; Rest, Narvaez, Bebeau, & Thoma, 1999), the FCM addresses the limitations of Kohlberg’s (and others’) single-variable theories in favor of one that provides a more balanced, coherent, and comprehensive account of the moral situation (Walker, 2004). This expanded model grew out of the increasing concern that a singular focus on moral judgment, without linking it to motivation and action, was in large part futile (Bergman, 2004; Blasi, 1980). The Minnesota group became convinced that the concern was not methodological, but conceptual. A complete model of moral functioning, according to Rest (et al., 1999), includes judgment, but other processes as well, namely sensitivity, motivation, and action. Concurrent with Blasi’s work (1980, 1984) focusing on the transition from moral cognition through moral motivation to moral action, the FCM provides the superstructure within which to understand the relationship between these processes; and provides a framework for understanding the distinct components of moral behavior as delineated by the Minnesota group. The sophistication of the model allows an examination of the service-learning project that acknowledges not only the moral act itself, but the sensitivity, motivations, and judgment that precipitated it.


In the FCM, Rest and his colleagues (Rest et al., 1986; Rest et al., 1999) outline four distinct components or functional processes that help to broaden moral development beyond a univariate model of development. Along with moral judgment, the model includes moral sensitivity, moral motivation (or focus), and moral action. Rest’s FCM started with the question: How does moral behavior come about?  From this question, the Minnesota group suggested that the literature points to at least these four functional processes that are required in order for moral behavior to occur (Bebeau, 2001).


1.      Moral sensitivity: it is necessary to appreciate that there is a moral dimension to the situation before behaving morally;

2.      Moral judgment: moral behavior requires that a judgment be made between available options, ethically justified;

3.      Moral motivation: it becomes necessary to prioritize the moral over competing concerns, whether moral or otherwise;

4.      Moral action: requires competence in the construction and implementation of actions that address the moral situation.


From the outset, it is clear that the model is not intended as a linear, problem-solving model.  The components are interactive and thus can impact each other, with each component having its own cognitive and affective dimensions.


This model is particularly useful as a framework for understanding the motivations and judgment that lead to civic engagement. In the application of the FCM in this context, the activity of service-learning represents moral action, but entails moral precursors. An adequate analysis of service-learning begins with the assumption that by entering into service, students reveal an appreciation for the moral realm (i.e., sensitivity). Even apart from the specifics of their service project, they are aware in a general sense of human need and are moved to address it. Moral reasoning has been examined in a number of studies of service-learning. Often, a pre and post-intervention assessment of moral reasoning attempts to determine the consequent impact of service-learning on moral reasoning, occasionally including a comparison group to provide the baseline. It is clearly insufficient to reason well morally, if one does not act morally. There is ample anecdotal evidence to indicate that high levels of moral reasoning (i.e., knowing right from wrong) might imply a sensitivity to moral situations, but does not necessarily mean that there is the adequate motivation and/or ability to take effective moral action.



Service-learning opportunities have expanded considerably during the past few decades, particularly in secondary and post-secondary settings. For some academic institutions, the emphasis on service-learning is tied to building character and promoting civic engagement. Often, the emphasis is rooted still deeper in an institution’s self-understanding or stated mission. As a result, it has become important to find effective means of assessing empirically the predictors and the effects of participation in service-learning activities.


The FCM provides a comprehensive framework within which to study and understand the service-learning enterprise. Bebeau, Rest, and Narvaez (1999) suggest that moral development researchers apply the model in such a way as to identify and examine processes as they contribute to moral action. Service-learning research should examine whether such action might contribute to a cycle of heightened moral sensitivity and judgment, which would then contribute to more effective moral engagement and action. Also, qualitative and/or quantitative analyses should be employed to determine possible motivators, or predictors, of service, such as moral reasoning, moral identity, self-concept, attitudes, political orientation, and religiosity, among others. In the end, a more thorough and systematic analysis of service-learning participation might give additional weight to the assumption that service-learning is an effective means of enhancing moral character.





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